Nathan jumped down from Newton's back and slowly approached the boardwalk, knowing he could trust the horse to follow him. He looked around for Elizabeth, Lee, Rosemary, or Laura, but no one seemed to watching the child walking down the street. "Hey there. What are you doing out here?"

Jack Thornton looked up and grinned, running towards them. "Horsie!"

Nathan picked him up and held him closer to Newton, allowing him to pet the patient horse's mane for a moment. "What are you doing out here?" he asked again.

Jack's lip started to quiver as he looked at Nathan. "Want Mama."

Nathan looked around, still expecting someone to be looking for the boy, but when no one appeared, he started across the street to the jail, Newton obediently following behind. He set Jack on the top step, quickly tied Newton to the post where he could drink, then sat down next to the little boy. Taking out his pocket knife, he carefully cut a couple slices off the apple from his saddlebag, then further cut one into smaller pieces for Jack. They had just finished the apple, giving half of it to Newton, when Rosemary came running across the street.

"Oh thank heavens!" she exclaimed. "We have been looking all over for you, young man!" She turned to Nathan. "Where on earth did you find him?"

Nathan shrugged. "He was walking down the boardwalk." With Rosemary stunned into silence, he continued. "I didn't see anyone out looking for him, and I didn't want to take him to the wrong place—go to the café when he should be at the Mercantile or to the dress shop when he's supposed to be at the infirmary—so I figured we'd just sit here until someone came looking for him."

"Lucas has been tearing the saloon apart for the last half an hour trying to find him," Rosemary explained.

"Lucas?" Nathan couldn't keep the surprise from his tone.

Rosemary nodded. "Laura had to go home and help her dad, so Lucas agreed to watch Jack for the afternoon. He stepped away to get Jack a snack and when he came back…."

Nathan looked back at the little boy beside him. "Jack, did you run away from Mr. Bouchard?"

"Want Mama," Jack pouted.

"So you were looking for your Mama?" Rosemary asked patiently, and Jack nodded.

Rosemary and Nathan shared a look of understanding before she reached out to pick up the wayward child. "Come on, young man. Let's go tell Mr. Bouchard where you've been."

"No!" Jack cried, clinging to Nathan's arm. "I stay here! Want Mon-tee Na-tan!"

Nathan put his arm around the boy and looked up at Rosemary. "I'll bring him over shortly," he promised. "Give him a chance to say good-bye to Newton before he goes home. Is that alright?"

Rosemary nodded, touched by how much Nathan clearly cared for Jack. "I'll just head back to the saloon and let them know to call off the search." Jack waved as she dashed back across the street.

Nathan stood and moved to one of the chairs in front of the jail, planning to let Jack play for a few minutes before taking him back to Lucas, but the little boy followed him and climbed into his lap. "Are you ready for your nap there, little man?" he teased.

"Not sweepy!" Jack tried to argue as he yawned and rested his head on Nathan's chest.

"You want to just sit here for a few minutes?"

"Yeah," the boy replied softly, then added, "Wuv you, Mon-tee Na-tan," before falling asleep.

Nathan's heart skipped and he couldn't stop himself placing a gentle kiss on the little boy's head. "I love you, too, Jack," he replied, leaning back in the chair and snuggling him closer. "You and your mom mean the world to be. I love you both more than I can say."

Lucas sighed as he watched Jack and Nathan play across the street. "She's never going to forgive me for this."

Rosemary shook her head, glad Lucas couldn't see her, but tried to sound positive as she replied, "Elizabeth isn't going to be angry with you. She knows better than anyone what kind of mischief her son can get up to. And I don't think even she realized he knew how to open doors. It will all be fine."

Lucas turned to look at her, still upset. "I promised to look after her son, the most important person in the world to her, and I failed!"

Rosemary sighed. "I wouldn't say you failed. You just didn't know what to do."

Lucas had never planned on having children. He enjoyed his freedom and the finer things, like travel, theater, and gourmet restaurants. All the things his parents and Elizabeth's had accustomed them to. Children, especially young children, were not a part of that world. When he met Elizabeth and decided to make her his, Lucas realized her son would put a damper on many of the things he enjoyed, but he knew it was only temporary. Once they were married and she was out of the classroom, he figured they would find a wonderful boarding school to send Jack to, and they could get on with the life he had planned. But for now, he needed to forge some sort of bond with the young boy, and it wasn't going well.

"Jack hates me," Lucas grumbled.

Rosemary rolled her eyes behind his back but pasted on a smile when he turned to face her. "Jack is a child. He doesn't know how to hate anyone. He just needs the chance to get to know you."

"Well clearly he knows Nathan well enough," Lucas snapped, nodding out the window again. "The boy who won't even let me hold his hand just crawled into Nathan's lap and looks to be going to sleep!"

Rosemary paused, considering her question, then asked it anyway. "Have you ever tried to get to know our little Jack?" When Lucas said nothing she continued. "Despite how awkward things have been between him and Elizabeth, Nathan takes every chance to interact with that boy—talks to him, gets down on the ground to play with him. And the Mountie uniform doesn't hurt, either." Lucas looked uncomfortable, but Rosemary pressed on. "Have you ever been inside Elizabeth's house? There are pictures of Jack, her husband, all over. One of their first dates, their wedding, a portrait from their honeymoon, Jack getting an award… In most of them, he's wearing his uniform, so little Jack associates that serge jacket with a father figure. And even you have to admit, Nathan is a wonderful father."

Lucas closed his eyes, sighing in frustration, so he missed Rosemary's eyes suddenly going wide as she stared across the street.

Elizabeth had stopped a few feet away, taking in the scene. She heard her son's words, and her heart melted at how lovingly Nathan cradled him. It twisted a bit when she heard his response. She knew Nathan loved her—he had made that clear on more than one occasion—and she knew he cared about her son, but to hear him say out loud...

Whether he heard her soft sigh or just sensed her presence, Nathan looked up, meeting Elizabeth's eyes. She smiled as she approached, reaching down to gently brush the hair off Jack's forehead. "How did this come about?" she asked quietly. "Laura stopped at the school during lunch to let me know she had to go home, and she said Lucas had volunteered to watch Jack for the afternoon." When Nathan merely nodded, she continued. "How did he end up with you?"

Nathan shrugged. "If I had to guess, I'd say someone has learned to open doors. Apparently Lucas stepped away for a moment, and Jack came out here. When I found him, he said he was looking for you."

"He was outside? Alone?" Elizabeth asked, startled.

Nathan nodded. "He was walking down the boardwalk. When I didn't see anyone with him, Newton and I brought him over here. I figured if he was lost, someone would come looking for him, so we stayed right here, in plain sight. Rosemary came out about ten minutes later. She said they were all tearing the saloon apart looking for Jack, and that Lucas was frantic."

"Thank you," Elizabeth said quietly. "I know babysitting isn't in your job description."

Nathan smiled. "It's no trouble. I'll take any time I can get with this great little guy."

"Well he clearly doesn't mind."

Elizabeth leaned down to place a kiss on her son's cheek just as Nathan turned his head to ask her a question and her lips brushed his instead. Even that glancing touch caused a spark that startled them both. They were still for a few seconds before Elizabeth stood upright and stepped back, her cheeks flushed. Nathan looked back at the sleeping child, inwardly thrilled, even knowing it was an inadvertent contact.

"I should probably get him home for a proper nap before dinner," Elizabeth finally said, barely meeting Nathan's eyes as she reached for her son.

Nathan stood, still cradling Jack to his chest. "He's out cold, dead weight. I'll carry him home for you."

Elizabeth tried to argue, but Nathan refused to concede, and she knew he was undoubtedly right. There was no way she would be able to carry her school things as well as a sleeping child all the way out to the row house. Neither of them mentioned that she could have taken the boy over to the saloon, or that Lucas could have driven her and Jack home.

They walked back to her house in silence. Elizabeth opened the door and Nathan carried Jack inside, gently placing him on his little cot next to her writing desk. He spotted Florence's bridal bouquet, smiling at the memory of delivering it to Elizabeth, as he turned to leave.

"Nathan, wait."

"Its fine, Elizabeth," he said, not seeking to embarrass her further. "I know you didn't mean for it to happen. I'm not going to read anything into that little kiss, I promise." He was opening the door when she spoke again.

"What if I did mean it?"

Nathan pushed the door shut and turned slowly to face her but didn't step further into the room. "What are you saying?"

Elizabeth took a deep breath, gathering her courage before she spoke. "I wanted to kiss you. To be honest, I've wanted to kiss you for a long time, I was just too afraid."

"Afraid? Of me?" Nathan asked, appalled.

"No!" she exclaimed, pulling him away from the door. She kept his hands in hers as she continued. "You have been nothing but wonderful to me, and I know I've treated you horribly. As I said that day on the road when you first told me you loved me, I am terrified to lose you like I did Jack. I still don't know if I could survive it. So I tried to push my feelings for you aside and force myself to feel something stronger for Lucas, because I knew that losing him wouldn't hurt as badly."

She released one hand and reached up to touch his cheek, looking him in the eye. "But that's not fair to any of us. I hurt you and Allie. I hurt Lucas by pretending to feel something I don't. And I have been hurting myself, trying to be someone I'm not. I enjoy fine dining, fancy hotels, and champagne picnics, but I don't need any of those things to be happy. Everything I need is right here in Hope Valley—my son, my classroom…and you. I'm so sorry, Nathan."

Nathan squeezed her hand and reached up tentatively to caress her face. "What exactly are you saying, Elizabeth?" he asked, afraid to give in to hope. It seemed like she was implying… "What about Lucas?"

"Lucas has been doing what he thinks is best for me."

"And what do you think is best for you?"

"You," she said emphatically, smiling brightly. "I love you, Nathan Grant. I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want us to be a family with Allie and Jack and any more little miracles that come along. I want—"

Nathan cut her off, pulling her close and finally locking his lips onto hers. They clung to one another, sharing the passion and desire that had been building in both of them for months, content to ignore the rest of world and just BE together.

"Daddy Na-tan!" Jack yelled excitedly from his cot.

Elizabeth and Nathan broke apart, still holding one another as they looked first to Jack and then back at each other, laughing. Elizabeth stepped away, pulling him with her as she rushed across the room to scoop up her son, and Nathan wrapped his arms around both of them.

"That's right, Jack," Elizabeth explained. "If he can forgive Mommy for everything she's put him through the last few months, and if you and Allie say 'yes', Nathan is going to be your new Daddy." She paused, looking up to meet his tender gaze. "If that's what he wants…"

Nathan leaned in to kiss them both. "Nothing would make me happier."

Lucas was pouring another round of drinks for a table full of Lee's men when Mr. Coulter himself came into the saloon. Lucas smiled politely, waiting for the only other man of means in town to join him.

"I hear you had some excitement here today," Lee said as he took a seat at the bar.

Lucas flushed and shook his head. "Certainly not the best first parenting experience," he admitted. "I'll know to watch him more closely next time."

"I was referring to the potential investor in the oil company," Lee explained. "You really think there's going to be a next time?" he asked, puzzled.

Lucas frowned. "Well since I'm courting his mother, I'm sure there will be many more opportunities for Jack and I to spend time together."

"But I thought…" Lee trailed off, finally realizing the other man had no idea what had unfolded across the street earlier.

"Lee," Lucas said rather briskly. "What aren't you saying?"

"It's nothing," Lee tried to change the subject. "I probably misunderstood, that's all."

"Lee…" Lucas said again, growing more impatient.

Lee swallowed the rest of his drink in one big gulp. Rosemary was going to be furious with him, and Elizabeth likely would be too, but it was too late. He toyed with his empty glass on the bar, unable to meet Lucas's eyes as he said, "Elizabeth kissed Nathan."

Lucas froze, sure he heard wrong. "You mean Nathan kissed Elizabeth. And I'm certain she put a stop to it. She and I…" he trailed off. He and Elizabeth had been courting for a few weeks. There had been picnics, horseback rides, and candlelit dinners, but she hadn't allowed him to do more than hold her hand as they walked down the street. Every time he tried to coax her into anything more intimate, she pulled away. He was getting impatient, and all the long looks and impromptu touches between her and Nathan were grating on his nerves. But he was raised to be a gentleman, so he would give Elizabeth a little more time before he pushed for more.

Lee gave him a sympathetic look. "I think you should prepare yourself. I believe Elizabeth has moved on."

"Nathan!" Elizabeth laughingly scolded as he wrapped his arms around her from behind again.

"I can't help myself," he sighed, pulling her back against his chest and closing his eyes as he softly kissed her shoulder, the side of her neck, and behind her ear. "I'm afraid if I take my hands off you, I'm going to find this has all been just a dream, and I don't ever want to wake up."

Despite her weak protests, she turned her head to allow him to continue his trail of kisses and closed her own eyes, relaxing back against him contently. "Only a dream come true," she murmured. Then, before they got lost in the moment again, she added, "Don't you have to meet Allie soon?"

Nathan paused, his lips pressing the top of her head as he sighed. "Yes, I do. We have to pick up something to make for dinner and I promised her she could make cookies tonight." He hugged her tightly for another moment then stepped away, gathering his jacket and stooping down to say good bye to Jack.

"Are you going to tell her about us? About this?" Elizabeth asked.

Nathan's eyes were still heated when he replied, "You think I could keep it a secret? From her? She's going to know something's up as soon as she sees me. And to be honest, I can't wait to tell her about this and what it means for all of us."

Elizabeth was quiet for a moment before she asked, "And you think she's going to be alright with it? She's been pretty upset with me lately…"

Nathan stood, raising his fingers to her chin and gently pushing her face up until she met his gaze. "She wants what's best for me, and she knows you are what I need to be happy. Complete." He smiled down at her. "I promise, all hard feelings will be forgotten the second she hears you and I are together."

Elizabeth smiled back, her worry nearly gone. She wanted to talk to Allie herself, explain what she could, and then she would be confident in the girl's support. And she had an idea of how to start. "You and Allie should come for dinner tonight. I am going to try my hand at meatloaf. It can't be too much different than shepherd's pie, and I've mastered that. It will give us plenty of time to talk things out."

"You're sure it won't be too much trouble? You'll have to make at least twice what you were planning."

Elizabeth shrugged. "It's no trouble. It just means I won't be eating leftovers for lunch for the next couple of days. And this way Allie and I can have some girl talk while she helps me in the kitchen. I'd like to tell her my side of things, make sure she knows I never meant to hurt you the way I did."

Nathan shook his head. "You're amazing, you know that?"

Elizabeth stepped closer. "Actually, I'm feeling rather selfish at the moment. I just want to keep doing this!" She stood on her toes and kissed him, wrapping her arms around his neck as his curled around her waist, and they blissfully ignored the world for a few more minutes.

Sighing heavily and cheeks flushed, Nathan turned away and started for the door. "We'll be back shortly," he promised. "And I'll pick something up from the café for dessert. Allie can make cookies tomorrow night."

"Maybe Jack could "help" her with that," Elizabeth replied, also flushed and slightly breathless. "Hurry back!"

"I will," he vowed. He turned back to give her one more quick kiss. "I love you, Elizabeth Thornton."

"I love you, too, Nathan Grant.

Allie was waiting in front the jail when Nathan walked back into town. She was used to him being out and about on business, and was prepared as usual with some of her homework. Engrossed in her book, she barely glanced up when Nathan came up the steps until he spoke. "Change of plans for dinner, kiddo."

"But Uncle Nathan, you promised!" she exclaimed, slamming her book back into her bag and standing up. Then she finally saw his face. "What's going on?" she demanded. "You're practically glowing."

Nathan guided her into his office and shut the door. As much as he wanted to shout the news for the whole world to hear, he knew that Elizabeth would want to talk to Lucas before they made things publically official. But as he'd told Elizabeth, there was no keeping it secret from Allie. They'd grown too close the last few years for him to keep anything this important from her.

"We're having dinner at the Thornton's," he explained. "I promised we'd bring something from the café for dessert." Then he waited for the explosion.

Allie's eyes went wide and she took a deep breath as though she were going to shout, then she backed down. "Why are we having dinner with Mrs. Thornton?" she asked suspiciously, her eyes narrowing at him. "Are we talking about school? That math program again?"

Nathan shrugged. "I imagine school will probably come up in the conversation, but that's not the first reason we're going."

"And what's the first reason?" Allie asked impatiently.

Nathan's face broke into a huge grin, happier than Allie had seen him in months. "How would you feel about me courting Mrs. Thornton?"

Allie shrieked and jumped into his arms, hugging him tightly. "You're serious?" she exclaimed. "Just like that? She's done with Mr. Bouchard? For real?"

Nathan laughed, hugging her back. "Yes, it's definitely real."

"How did this happen? When did this happen?"

"It happened about an hour ago, and the rest…I'll let Elizabeth explain, but let's just say we owe little Jack big time!"